Parini’s The Damascus Road (Doubleday, Apr.) follows the spiritual and literal journeys of St. Paul and St. Luke.
Did writing about St. Paul require a different approach than your previous novels?
I’ve mostly written about people like Leo Tolstoy or Herman Melville: people who physically were more present in time and who were literary figures, not iconic, holy figures like Paul. So, writing about Paul and Luke did feel very different in texture than writing about Tolstoy, Melville, or Walter Benjamin. It meant sinking into a very distant historical time.
What specifically about Paul drew you to him?
Paul, along with Plato, is one of the most important minds in shaping the Western world. Without Paul, there would be no Christianity; it would’ve shriveled into a small Jewish sect in Jerusalem and disappeared. Paul had the profound insight that Christianity needed to be open to the West, and then he physically took it to the West. He also had a very mystical sense of things—he talked about travelling to the third heaven.
How did you want to portray Paul?
I wanted to think about what that would be like for Paul, who was in touch with the heavens and channeling God but who was still an ordinary human: a flesh and blood person who ate breakfast and everything else. I wanted to try to balance that physical, imperfect creature he must have been with someone who was channeling the Spirit.
Is providing a well-rounded perspective of Paul one of the reasons you decided to have Luke as the other protagonist?
Yes. Luke travelled with Paul on his missionary journeys. He was at the scene when events took place. He’s watching Paul, he’s skeptical of Paul, he’s worshipful of Paul, he’s admiring of Paul—he’s perplexed and amazed in equal measure.
Do you find it important to present Christianity in a way that persuades modern readers of its power and contemporary relevance?
I think what Paul preaches and what Christianity preaches are truths we can’t do without. I wanted to show that Christianity is not this boring, out-of-date, closed down religion that’s patriarchal and sexist. The early bishops and the real heads of the church were women like Phoebe and Lydia who were strong, powerful women. I think that seeing Christianity in its true, radical light could be transformative. I think many people should be interested in what Christianity was like in its earliest days and how the message of Jesus gets told and retold. Christianity has been so essential to Western civilization. And I’m not telling Paul’s story in a way you would hear it in Sunday school; I’m writing about a more complex Paul.